Justin Rutledge: Man Descending

David Berry

Rutledge's strengths are evident, but he's reaching the point in his development where he needs to start synthesizing them into something more ambitious.

Justin Rutledge

Man Descending

Label: Six Shooter
US Release Date: 2008-05-06
UK Release Date: 2008-05-12

"Literary" is hardly a rare adjective, particularly in the realm of the singer-songwriter, but Toronto's Justin Rutledge seems to wear that particular descriptor on his sleeve more than most. His history as an English major and literary journal editor is well-documented, and his lyrics, nearly always possessed of a poet's penchant for concision and a novelist's eye for character, would belie that fact regardless.

Not that Rutledge does anything to dispel the image: word on the street is he's working on a new album based on characters from Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero, to say nothing of his latest album, named after and inspired by a collection of Guy Vanderhaege short stories. The key to both that collection and Rutledge's Man Descending is the line from which they take their name: "A man descending is propelled by inertia; the only initiative left him is whether or not he decides to enjoy the passing scene."

There is more than a note of fatalism in such a sentiment, though it wouldn't be right at all to think of it as despairing: like the free-falling man, on a broad though very meaningful level, we are all inescapably fated for a certain end. If it's a resignation, it's a resignation to life's beauty, an exhortation to consider the ultimate worthiness of our trip to the inevitable.

This kind of sentiment pops up most directly on "This Too Shall Pass", the album's third song. In his breathy, delicate vocals, Rutledge takes stock of the world around him -- the northern sky, a dark night of the soul, a failing relationship and one still in the blissful thralls of all-encompassing love -- and wills it all away with the easy, detached, eponymous refrain. The song's beauty comes from its breadth. Though it starts with a lament ("When your eyes are sick with wonder / And your heart is in a cast") this isn't just a comfort for someone struggling through bad times; his last verse describes a love that the more romantic might call eternal, but which Rutledge recognizes as ultimately transient. In the line, "We've figured out how to make a good thing last / this too shall pass", Rutledge reveals his seeming distance as celebratory appreciation, a recognition that impermanence only heightens experience.

Though few of the songs get quite as emotionally invested, this appreciation of the finite permeates the album, produced in Rutledge's straightforward, soft take on Americana. In particular, he employs the rootsy tendency to root himself in a place: much of the appreciation of life throughout Man Descending takes the form of physical description. On "San Sebastien", one of many songs that name-checks a specific place ("Alberta Breeze", "Waterloo", "Greenwich Time") he sings lovingly of "Soapstone / Slate and marble / On the terrace / Where we dined", a bedrock for the song's narrator to lay his heart in. Even the lazily mournful "Everyone's In Love" uses mountains, seas, and cities to lament Rutledge's fading love for a girl who's not what she seems.

And though Rutledge is very capable at setting a scene, that particular traditional tic does point to one of his more important drawbacks: he's far too willing to soak himself in the trappings of standard singer/songwriter tropes. Man Descending marks his third straight album of pretty but unambitious Americana. His ability is evident, but this is still more a genre exercise than a work of art, a handicap that can start to suck some of the feeling out of his songs, especially on repeated listens.

Rutledge's strengths are evident, but he's reaching the point in his development where he needs to start synthesizing them into something more ambitious. The world will never have a surfeit of people telling us to appreciate life as it passes by, but Rutledge could do more to give us something that makes it worth appreciating.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.